BUFFALO, N.Y. — Lenox, Iowa, isn’t quite the midway point between Des Moines, Iowa, and Omaha, Nebraska. It’s simultaneously on the way and out of the way; venturing off Interstate 80 to stop in the small town of 1,400 people adds about an hour and change onto what is normally a two-hour drive.
But Northern Iowa coach Mark Farley was making good time on his recruiting trip from Des Moines to Omaha and figured he could spare the hour to check out the 6-foot-6 kid he had heard about in Lenox.
Six years after meeting coach Farley, that kid from Lenox — offensive tackle Spencer Brown — was selected in the third round of the 2021 NFL draft by the Buffalo Bills. Farley took a chance on an eight-man football standout with the right measurables and attitude, and all it cost him was a few gallons of gas, a couple of hours and a scholarship.
For Farley, it was worth every minute.
“It’s probably one of the best scholarship experiences I’ve had as a head coach,” he said. “I’m sitting there talking to him, and there was a connection, so I offered him. I told him, ‘You’ve got a scholarship to Northern Iowa,’ and his first comment was, ‘You mean a real scholarship?’
“I get chills thinking about it, because he was a big man sitting there with the tears flowing asking if it was a real scholarship. I told him, ‘Well, that’s the only kind I’ve got!’ It was a great experience and as it turned out, it couldn’t have been for a greater person.”
Chicago Bears running back Tarik Cohen, Dallas Cowboys linebacker Leighton Vander Esch and now Brown, form a small-but-impressive fraternity of current NFL players who played eight-man football in high school. The condensed version of 11-man football is generally a product of small towns and not known for producing players who go to Division I college programs or the NFL.
But in a town barely large enough to fill one section at Buffalo’s Highmark Stadium, Brown managed to do exactly that thanks to his size, a film session on a classmate’s computer and a coach who had a little time to spare.
“It was seriously a shot in the dark,” Brown said. “I was the biggest shot in the dark possible, because they didn’t know what I was. Just knew I was a tall kid and athletic; that’s all he knew.
“And then this happened, so the risk paid off, I guess.”
‘I mean, he could catch anything’
When Lenox High switched to eight-man football in 2004, Allen Dukes couldn’t have been more on board. The Lenox native had coached eight-man in Missouri and was excited to do the same in his hometown.
But the transition was met with some resistance from the community. People tend to reject what they don’t understand and this was a new concept.
“There’s still a lot of people who don’t consider eight-man football ‘real’ football because it’s not 11-man,” Dukes said. “Well, I’m here to tell you, it’s exactly the same game — you still have to run, block and tackle. It’s little-bitty changes, but people are so biased against it … it’s been a godsend for a lot of small schools to be able to keep their programs alive.
“Eight-man football was lower than second class, the state really didn’t care about us. But now they have to because there’s 70-something schools in Iowa that play eight-man.”
The field is smaller than a standard 11-man field, which is 100 yards by 53.3 yards. The Lenox field is 80 yards by 40 yards, though dimensions for eight-man fields vary depending on the governing body. Penalties are the same as 11-man football, but final scores often look more like basketball results than football.
“There’s no tackles — the [offensive] line goes: center, guard, tight end,” Brown said. “Then you have no wide receivers and it’s just quarterback, fullback, halfback. That’s it. The field is smaller … The score is gonna be like 80-65 and no one blinks; that’s normal.”
Lenox went 8-1 in its first year of eight-man football in 2004, and even though it missed the playoffs, the town was hooked.
So was Brown. Even before he joined the varsity, Dukes was well aware of him. “Everyone knows everyone” in Lenox, Dukes said.
The coach figured even though the 6-foot-2, 190-pound Brown played fullback for his middle school team, he would be making the transition to guard when he reached high school.
That didn’t last long.
“We played him at guard his freshman and part of his sophomore year, then he came up to us and asked to move out one slot, so we moved him to tight end and he never relinquished it,” Dukes said. “I mean, he could catch anything. He had such a long wingspan that anything that was close to him, he could pull in. … Spencer had such an advantage on everybody since he was taller than all the [defensive backs] he played against.”
Lenox threw the ball only “when we had to,” Dukes said, so Brown never put up big receiving numbers in high school. In fact, he was arguably a better defensive end than tight end, leading the state in sacks as a senior.
Brown injured his knee playing basketball his junior season and was cleared to play football on the day of the 2015 season opener. He recorded seven sacks in a blowout victory against East Union. It would’ve been 10, as Brown is quick to remember, were it not for the three that were called back due to penalties.
Then there was the game against Lenox’s undefeated rival, Fremont Mills, when Brown caught the go-ahead touchdown and sealed the victory with a strip sack.
“[The TD] was one of those where he just reached up with one hand and pulled it in,” Dukes said. “We basically won district on that catch right there.
“He was just all over the field. … When he played defensive end the way we knew he could, other teams wouldn’t run at him. They’d run away from him. Because he was that talented.”
Lenox assistant coach Todd Parrish said they “started seeing something” during Brown’s senior season, when it became apparent his size and talent set him apart.
At the urging of Brown’s cousins, who happen to be close friends of Parrish’s (don’t forget, it’s a small town), the assistant coach created a highlight film for Lenox’s star tight end.
“In my brain, we’re talking Division II, because nobody out here goes Division I,” Parrish remembered, laughing. “When looking at Division I schools, I’m like, ‘Those boys are big, they’re quick and I just don’t know if we’re quite there.'”
‘You gotta get up, man’
Farley has been the head coach at Northern Iowa since 2001; he is the sixth-longest tenured coach in Division I FCS and eighth-longest in Division I.
He’d never been to Lenox until that 2015 trip, on a whim, en route to Omaha.
“There was this big, 6-5, 6-6 kid in Lenox — that’s all I knew,” Farley said. “It was not planned, it was more of a timing thing where I had an opening and I was strictly going off a height on a sheet of paper.”
He called ahead before his arrival at Lenox High, where Brown waited for him at the front door, “like walking into somebody’s house,” Farley described it.
After a few minutes of pleasantries, Farley asked to see his highlight film. So Brown led him to the school’s computer lab filled with massive (and outdated) white monitors — and an active class of students. Brown approached one of the students with a short, authoritative message.
“You gotta get up, man,” Brown said.
For the next 10 minutes or so, Brown and Farley watched the highlight tape Parrish had put together. It was difficult to watch on those monitors, Farley said, but he saw what he needed to see: a kid who could run.
They gave that student his workstation back and spoke privately in the teachers’ lounge, where Brown’s personality and presence checked every box for Farley, who offered him a scholarship on the spot — roughly 30 minutes after arriving on campus.
“I cried right in front of him. I was emotional for sure,” Brown said. “I didn’t know what I was going to do for college, I didn’t know if I was going to go to any school and play sports, but he sealed the deal for me right there.
“I didn’t know anything about UNI, really. I hadn’t been to the campus, didn’t meet any of the teachers for my major. I didn’t do any of that, I just committed the next week.”
The University of Iowa lightly recruited Brown as a tight end before signing Detroit Lions 2019 first-round pick T.J. Hockenson, and Iowa State offered him a spot as a preferred walk-on. But Northern Iowa was Brown’s first offer and that meant something to him.
Farley originally brought him in as a tight end, but kept the door open for a move to the offensive line, depending on how well he moved once he put on additional weight.
Brown spent his redshirt freshman season as a tight end but switched to tackle after eclipsing 300 pounds while still retaining his mobility.
Similar to the switch he made as a high school freshman, Brown embraced his new role. Looking back, it’s hard for him to argue with the results.
“I loved it — I don’t know what it was, but as soon as I got in the room and started learning, it just kind of took off for me,” Brown said. “I just threw all my chips into one basket once I got into the offensive line room, and now I’m sitting here in Buffalo.”
‘It’s fun that this is my job’
Looking back, Parrish, who maintains a close relationship with Brown and “didn’t miss many” of his games at Northern Iowa, said his former pupil grew so fast in high school it took him a while to get used to his new body.
Brown got used to it quickly in college, where he packed on nearly 100 pounds thanks to a diet of beef and corn, Farley said. When Northern Iowa canceled its 2020 football season because of the coronavirus pandemic, multiple schools in the Big Ten and Big 12 courted the now 6-foot-8, 315 pound Brown — but he remained loyal to the school that believed in him when he was a 6-foot-5, 200-pound kid who couldn’t believe he’d been offered a real scholarship.
With the Bills, he’ll have time to adjust to the level of competition behind incumbent starter Daryl Williams. But for the first time in his playing career, his team knows exactly what position it wants Brown to play.
“For me, right now he’d just be a swing tackle and not necessarily a guard,” Bills general manager Brandon Beane said. “It gets hard to move in there [at guard] when you’re as tall as he is. He’s smart enough to do it. It’s not that we wouldn’t rep him in there. We do like to have our guys do it just in case on game day something happens if you only have so many linemen up. His main spots will be left and right tackle.”
Brown has spent the past few months in and out of Lenox, where his mother is the high school principal and more Buffalo Bills flags are flying than anywhere else in Iowa. He works out at his old high school and hangs out at the baseball fields.
All a reminder of the journey he has been on over the past nine years.
“Eight-man football in a small town — it is different ends of the world [from the NFL],” Brown said. “You just have to show up [in Buffalo] and do your job. The rest of the stuff is easy … it’s fun that this is my job.”